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About Jim Bird

Jim Bird
Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.

Making Refactoring Work

A recent academic study raises some questions about how useful and how important refactoring really is.

The researchers found that refactoring didn’t seem to make code measurably easier to understand or change, or even measurably cleaner (measured by cyclomatic complexity, depth of inheritance, class coupling or lines of code).

But as other people have discussed, this study is deeply flawed. It appears to have been designed by people who didn’t understand how to do refactoring properly:
 
 
 

  1. The researchers chose 10 “high impact” refactoring techniques (from a 2011 study by Shatnawi and Li) based on a model of OO code quality which measures reusability, flexibility, extendibility and effectiveness (“the degree to which a design is able to achieve the desired functionality and behavior using OO design concepts and techniques” – whatever that means), but which specifically did not include understandability. And then they found that the refactored code was not measurably easier to understand or fix. Umm, should this have been a surprise?The refactorings were intended to make the code more extensible and reusable and flexible. In many cases this would have actually made the code less simple and harder to understand. Flexibility and extendibility and reusability often come at the expense of simplicity, requiring additional scaffolding and abstraction. These are long-term investments that are intended to pay back over the life of a system – something that could not be measured in the couple of hours that the study allowed.The list of techniques did not include common and obviously useful refactorings which would have made the code simpler and easier to understand, such as Extract Class and Extract Method (which are the two most impactful refactorings, according to research by Alshehri and Benedicenti, 2014) Extract Variable, Move Method, Change Method Signature, Rename anything, … [insert your own shortlist of other useful refactorings here].
  2. There is no evidence – and no reason to believe – that the refactoring work that was done, was done properly. Presumably somebody entered some refactoring commands in Visual Studio and the code was “refactored properly”.
  3. The study set out to measure whether refactoring made code easier to change. But they attempted to do this by assessing whether students were able to find and fix bugs that had been inserted into the code – which is much more about understanding the code than it is about changing it.
  4. The code base (4500 lines) and the study size (two groups of 10 students) were both too small to be meaningful, and students were not given enough time to do meaningful work: 5 minutes to read the code, 30 minutes to answer some questions about it, 90 minutes to try to find and fix some bugs.
  5. And as the researchers point out, the developers who were trying to understand the code were inexperienced. It’s not clear that they would have been able to understand the code and work with it even it had been refactored properly.

But the study does point to some important limitations to refactoring and how it needs to be done.

Good Refactoring takes Time

Refactoring code properly takes experience and time. Time to understand the code. Time to understand which refactorings should be used in what context. Time to learn how to use the refactoring tools properly. Time to learn how much refactoring is enough. And of course time to get the job done right.

Someone who isn’t familiar with the language or the design and the problem domain, and who hasn’t worked through refactoring before won’t do a good job of it.

Refactoring is Selfish

When you refactor, it’s all about you. You refactor the code in ways to make it easier for YOU to understand and that should make it easier for YOU to change in the future. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the code will be easier for someone else to understand and change.

It’s hard to go wrong doing some basic, practical refactoring. But deeper and wider structural changes, like Refactoring to Patterns or other “Big Refactoring” or “Large Scale Refactoring” changes that make some programmers happy can also make the code much harder for other programmes to understand and work with – especially if the work only gets done part way (which often happens with well-intentioned, ambitious root canal refactoring work).

In the study, the researchers thought that they were making the code better, by trying to make it more extensible, reusable and flexible. But they didn’t take the needs of the students into consideration. And they didn’t follow the prime directive of refactoring:


Always start by refactoring to understand. If you aren’t making the code simpler and easier to understand, you’re doing it wrong.

Ironically, what the students in the study should have done – with the original code, as well as the “refactored code” – was to refactor it on their own first so that they could understand it. That would have made for a more interesting, and much more useful, study.

Refactoring Works

There’s no doubt that refactoring – done properly – will make code more understandable, more maintainable, and easier to change. But you need to do it right.

Reference: Making Refactoring Work from our JCG partner Jim Bird at the Building Real Software blog.
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